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Guilty of Indigence: The Urban Poor in China, 1900-1953 by Janet Y. Chen (review)

From: Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies
Volume 73, Number 1, June 2013
pp. 203-207 | 10.1353/jas.2013.0013

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In this fine study, Janet Chen explores how various Chinese governments dealt with the growing and rampant problem of urban poverty. Her study centers on the cities of Beijing and Shanghai from late Qing until the early years of the People's Republic of China. This is a topic that has not received sufficient attention in the historical scholarship. To be sure, historians have shown that poverty had existed in China for a long time. In recent research it has also been pointed out that in imperial times, alleviating poverty was mainly the responsibility of philanthropic work and ethical activism to be carried out by members of the educated elite, something to be pursued out of concern for social stability and welfare. But little research has been done in regard to poverty alleviation in the modern period. Significant changes occurred: in the twentieth century poverty as a social ill acquired new meaning and urgency in the eyes of aspiring members of the elite who hoped to make China strong and rich. As a social phenomenon it came to be viewed by twentieth-century governments as a significant obstacle to modernizing China. As a consequence, the fight against poverty ceased to be seen as a moral obligation, but was redefined as one of the most important missions for the modernizing state. Since cities were the symbols of modernity, finding ways to eliminate urban poverty became a political priority for developing the nation.

Janet Chen's study presents the reader with a vivid, finely grained, and balanced account of urban poverty, both as the target of ever-intensifying policies and as social experience. A laudable merit of this study is that it explores not only state policies, but also the experience and agency of those classified as poor. Based on in-depth archival research and careful reading of a wealth of other sources, the study offers many new insights. Addressing the rarely discussed problem of destitution and poverty in Chinese cities in the modern period, it fills a serious gap and is a welcome contribution to the growing body of scholarship on urban China.

In the introduction Chen lays out the approach underpinning her research for this book. For Chen, changing discourses on the reasons for the individual agency of poverty are at the center of the story. Although the nineteenth-century social and economic decline, as well as natural disasters, caused poverty throughout much of China, what changed more dramatically, according to Chen, was the perspective and analysis of this phenomenon. In imperial China, the elite tended to conceive destitution as the result of individual misfortune that often was beyond the control of the individual and could afflict every member of society. Therefore the educated and wealthy groups of Confucian society considered it as their social and moral responsibility to provide relief to the needy. The changes in the twentieth century were stimulated by two developments, the circulation of Western social and economic theories, and China's own search for ways to strengthen the nation.

The rethinking of poverty, which started in the final years of the Qing dynasty, is the topic of Chapter 1. Hence after 1900, beginning with the New Policy, poverty was no longer understood as a matter of individual destiny; rather, it was seen as a social problem that transcended individual circumstances and thus needed to be addressed for China to join the ranks of the advanced industrial powers. In this context, the terms "poor" or "poverty" acquired a clearly pejorative meaning. Under the influence of Western social theories such as Neo-Malthusianism and Taylorism, the government started to identify poverty with idleness, laziness, dependency, and social parasitism. Being poor became a stigma and the object of social discrimination. Consequently, in this concept providing aid and assistance were no longer sufficient to address the problem. Rather, the poor had to be trained, reformed, and, if necessary, coerced to adopt a different life style.

Chapters 2 shows how the Chinese state in the Republican era enacted a number of new policies to combat this growing sense of a deep social and economic crisis. These policies were based on new ideas and discourses that described the nonworking poor as...



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